WASHINGTON – During the intermission between acts in Monday night’s production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” at the Roundhouse Theatre in Bethesda, Md., a man sitting in the back row answered his phone and told whomever was on the other end that he was at a play.
“It’s about Irish hillbillies,” he said into the phone. “Poor white trash, yeah.”
He missed a large part of the play’s premise, entirely.
A story rooted in Irish history unfolded onstage in front of a small theater crammed full of people, including D.C.’s Irish Embassy. (And bravo for the actors and actresses who didn’t let the loud buzzing and ringing electronic devices during the performance interrupt the flow and feel of their scenes.)
The play centers around a mother-daughter duo, Mag and Maureen, who are as feisty, stubborn and loud as you can imagine any fierce Irish family would be.
Maureen, Mag’s 40-year-old daughter, takes care of her in her old age, but that job comes with a huge drawback: feeling trapped in a small Irish town where most people have left to find work in England or America.
It is this work-oriented relocation of secondary characters in the play that brings out Ireland’s historic roots. When Americans think of Ireland, rolling hills and craggy old rocks immediately come to mind. Pubs. Fish and chips. Leprechauns, maybe. Lots of green.
We don’t think of how 50,000 people died in County Galway on the west coast during the five years of potato famine in the mid-1800s, according to the play’s program.
Or how entire families were decimated in small towns like Leenane, the setting of the play. Jobs are scarce in western Ireland and the people there are leaving for a better life elsewhere.
Fast-forward to the 1980s, when this play takes place. The main characters onstage aren’t hillbillies, but they are poor. Frustrated. Trapped. They’re taking what little they have and making the best of it as their lives fly past and as people desert an unchanging town. In fact, it sounds a little like recession-riddled America four years ago.
Maureen struggles to find a way out of what is otherwise a very quiet life caring for an obstinate mother who provokes her. In turn, Mag does everything she can to keep Maureen from leaving, even burning a letter from Maureen’s love interest, Pato, when he invites her to move away from Ireland with him.
During one climactic scene, Mag pleads with Maureen not to go out as Maureen ignores her. “But who will look after me, so?” she says after Maureen slams the door.
This Ireland, a beautiful country full of walls that imprison their inhabitants, is nothing like the charming nation Americans think of, giving the play a literary feel. The story is not light or happy or romantic. Then again, neither are the forces that have shaped the Emerald Isle. It is not easy for festive mental images of a hearty Ireland to be ripped apart during the play, but it is fair in its challenging of the assumptions about Ireland that pervade American culture.
This means the man in the back row of seats at a play that appeals to those who have a deep appreciation for theater (and who want to see a play grounded in substance) never stood a chance as an audience member.
Those who do see it should heed the nuanced warning in his words, too. There is no trace of the Ireland depicted in the romcom “P.S. I Love You,” whimsical and romantic and wholesome. It is not that kind of play.
The performance does have a somewhat gruesome ending and it can feel a little long at times. But the bits of human truth that surface throughout the performance — from the tragic sense of history, to the struggle of caring for aging parents to the desire for more in life — are genuine.
For those who will go to see it, read the history printed in the program. The actions, words, motives and subtle themes of the play will make a lot more sense if you do, and they are worth noting, if only for the reflection they encourage.